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Higher Education in Two Steps

Published onJun 06, 2023
Higher Education in Two Steps

Ideal higher education involves every student who has the capacity to attain (at least) the end terms. It enables everyone to reach their full potential, which requires personal attention. This essay revolves around the tension between these two opening statements: the personal contact necessary to achieve learning is at odds with the massification that comes with increasing the accessibility of higher education. Just as the essay as a form of expression started with Michel de Montaigne, we start our essay with his On Education. We argue that today’s ideal educator resembles Montaigne’s 1575 ideal, but that reality lags behind. We continue to argue that the ideal-reality gap affects the social contracts between the student, the teacher, and the higher education institutions. Hence, the higher education system fails to set the right context for educators and students to teach and learn as Montaigne proposed. We conclude with a recommendation for two-step higher education: first, a massified knowledge-transfer step resembling the contemporary social contract; second, a distinctive social contract focusing on small-scale and in-depth application.

Small-Scale Ideals meet Reality

Our ideal educator resembles the description Michel de Montaigne proposed in 1575. To him, the tutor should strive to build character in her pupil before pouring in knowledge. A well-made pupil – particularly one that can postpone his judgement and is modest in nature – is able to process knowledge and use it to refine his judgement. Someone rich in wisdom from books without a proper character, says Montaigne (1575), always has a quote ready but poorly understands the essence of his high-sounding language. Once a character has been formed, the pupil will be capable of absorbing new knowledge. Moreover, the tutor is expected to adjust her instructions to the capacities of the pupil. Rather than leading the way, the tutor assists the pupil in discovering his own path. Finally, the true value of education reveals itself in the ability of the pupil to put his knowledge into practice, in particular the practice of his reasoning.  The proof of the pudding is, literally, in the eating: let the tutor “make him put what he has learned into a hundred several forms, and accommodate it to so many several subjects, to see if he yet rightly comprehends it, and has made it his own (…). ’Tis a sign of crudity and indigestion to disgorge what we eat in the same condition it was swallowed; the stomach has not performed its office unless it have altered the form and condition of what was committed to it to concoct.” (Montaigne, 1575).

Our ideal educator embodies Montaigne’s ideas. She focuses on character education as much as on cognitive training and labor market preparation. She adjusts her teaching to the capacities of individual students entrusted to her protective care. And she, in today’s terminology, only rests when the student is not only able to comprehend and apply knowledge, but also to combine it with prior knowledge in an academic synthesis and evaluate new information using the instructions provided.

Our idea of the ideal-typical teacher meets the requirements of Montaigne’s job description and also resonates with contemporary ideas on educators. First, this teacher engages in character-building. While there are still many open ends to the discussion – how do you assess character? What is a desirable character, and can one be so paternalistic as to put that into program-level learning objectives? – the notion that some character building is inevitable and perhaps even necessary has become commonplace: knowledge transfer involves value transfer, and a value-free conception of education is inconceivable. Even if no explicit attention is paid to the development of character, students still go through a formative period in their development while in university. Character-building hence happens regardless of universities’ attention to it. This may yield unforeseen consequences: for example, it has been argued that the untrusting manager who suffocates employee initiatives with extensive control mechanisms is in part created by the business administration programs that assumed (!) untrustworthy employees and focus(ed) on the benefits of incentives and control (Ghoshal, 2005). Hence, as students’ character also develops when in university, teachers are advised to guide them in their personal growth rather than to leave these aspects of their education untouched. What is more, in a context in which science is perceived as just another opinion, universities are tasked to teach students the rigor of academic research. More broadly, in a context where global challenges necessitate that students take an informed position, students ought to be trained to look beyond narrow self-interest to be ready to confront today’s challenges. Integrity, and the ability to exert self-control indeed would qualify as core character traits in Montaigne’s ideal as well.

Second, the idea that the tutor should adjust her teaching to the capacity of the students resonates well with the ideals of contemporary teachers. Many programs strive to attract a diverse intake and to be inclusive in their treatment of student groups who previously lacked access to higher education. Inclusive and equitable quality education is even the fourth United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal. Here, again, the details of what it takes to be interculturally aware and to what extent teachers are expected to individualize their support to be optimally inclusive are open for debate, but the principle that equal opportunities should exist in education for those with equal abilities is beyond debate. As more diverse students find their way to higher education, class size and heterogeneity increase simultaneously, which challenges the ideal of customizing education to individual needs.

Third, although less shared than the preceding traits of the ideal teacher, universities strive to connect their students to practice while they are studying. Curricula nowadays include coursework fostering professional skills, programs offer internships and employers are invited to campus to inform prospective employees about what it takes to join their ranks. In research universities, the notion that academic training also functions to enhance students’ chances to land a good job is not uncontroversial, but most universities appear to see it as their task to provide career services to students (McCowan, 2015).

While the teacher ideal may revolve around building character, adjusting to student capacities and seeking application, one may wonder to what extent flesh and blood teachers approach the ideal. Or, as we recently asked (Van der Laan & Willems, 2023): would today’s teachers get the tutor post Montaigne outlined over 400 years ago and which we still deem fitting? We observe that a considerable part of higher education is organized in such a way that Montaigne’s ideal cannot be realized. For example, many programs have an annual intake that necessitates anonymity. Enhanced accessibility to higher education without commensurate increases in funding has led to massification of education (Hornsby & Osman, 2014). This is challenging as university students need to develop their learning strategies to also include analytical problem-solving skills. Massification, to the extent that it affects class size, alters the types and amount of learning that teachers can promote (Ehrenberg et al., 2001). In large-scale lectures it is arguably difficult to adjust the teaching to the individual student, or to have extensive interaction focused on building character.

In sum, our ideal teacher is expected to involve herself in character building in students and attend to individual differences and demands from prospective employers. In practice, massification of education places limits on the realization of this ideal.

Massification and the Social Contract

We view the teachers, students, and (managers of) higher education institutions as actors in a social contract. A social contract contains implicit and explicit agreements and expectations that are necessary to keep a community running. Here, the contract includes the often-unwritten rules of engagement within the confines of the university. Kwiek (2005) describes how the dismantling of welfare states led to a new social contract between states and universities in which “the role of universities as engines of economic growth, contributors to economic competitiveness and suppliers of well-trained workers for the new knowledge-driven economy is being widely acknowledged” (Kwiek, 2005, p. 324).

This renewed social contract, through its emphasis on ‘producing employability,’ introduces efficiency thinking in institutions and students alike. Students become trapped in a meritocratic labyrinth of individual achievement (Van Lenning, 2019). In this context, university training is reduced to knowledge acquisition and teaching becomes a transaction in which tuition fees buy knowledge. A conversation about knowledge transfer differs markedly from one about personal development, and the social contract that arises between teachers and students hinders the realization of the ideal as outlined above.

The teaching infrastructure and organization develop to fit the needs massification brings. If we look at our own Tilburg University, 58 out of 104 lecture rooms seat more than forty students, and 24 rooms even fit more than eighty students. The metric is open to all kinds of criticism, but the number indicates that infrastructure imposes restrictions on the ability to reverse the trend of massification. The organization of education has also evolved, resulting in centralized support functions and more streamlined procedures. Procedures that are common among the student population, such as evaluating high-school diplomas for admission, registering students for courses and exams, collecting quantitative feedback on courses are all valuable and efficient in their scalable nature: automated and centralized processes not only benefit teachers and administrators by reducing burden on them and localizing specialized knowledge and expertise, but also benefit students by providing accessible, prompt and on-demand support. If we depict students as knowledge-acquiring customers of the university, procedures are the equivalent of transaction costs. New Public Management principles prescribe that economizing on transaction costs makes sense, and exploiting scale economies is a recommended cost saver.

Students, however, are not knowledge-acquiring customers. Students’ entry into university coincides with moving to a new city or new surroundings where they start to live more independently – all in all, they face overwhelming changes around the time they enter higher education. What is worse, c.f. Montaigne, the cognitive systems and character required to process all the information they need to organize their studies are under development. Even before a student has been admitted to the university program of their choice, they are faced with all sorts of administrative and technical requirements they need to attend to. This continues throughout the years the student spends at university, and generally after graduation too. Students navigate through reams of information to make decisions affecting their (academic) life. Often, they struggle to structure their fuzzy thinking about what their actual need for support is and feed that into the administrative machinery designed to handle well-articulated requests.

Moreover, not all support is scalable and the support that is not risks getting lost in the cracks of the institution. Not all processes are clear-cut and adaptable and there are as many individual matters as there are students in an institution. Programs often no longer have a physical front desk for students but rely on a campus-wide student desk or service point, and academic advisors - renamed education coordinators to emphasize their supply-side focus on coordinating the program rather than assisting students in findings their way – divide their attention across multiple programs. The standardized support writes additional lines in the social contract that facilitates students’ focus on their becoming well-trained workers for the economy.

Towards a Two-Step Solution

At University College Tilburg we experience the trade-off between serving a large group and offering small-scale education. After all, our intake of approximately 125 students per year pushes the organization to exploit scale economies, while the Liberal Arts and Sciences tradition to teaching is small-scale and intensive. Our aim is to instill trust in our students, facilitate a smooth learning environment and not overload them with bureaucratic procedures. Hence, our challenge is to draft a ‘small-scale’ social contract in a large-scale context. We draw from our experience and extrapolate to a more utopian than realistic two-step solution.

As core staff, we take a personal approach to each student’s request and strive to close the gaps. When a student approaches the management assistants, there is an unwritten rule to address their request swiftly; if the request requires input and support from a specific staff member, the student is (re)directed and guided through the process, all the while keeping the waiting process as short as possible. To the extent that requests are efficiently dealt with by centralized support structures, students are of course referred to the relevant authorities. We assist students in formulating their requests and break questions down into parts that are best redirected to central support offices and parts that require fine-tuning to the students’ specific needs. With this approach, we not only notice a sense of ease and relief in students’ immediate and candid feedback but also their appreciation expressed during personal encounters. Students value prompt and personal communication. Knowing where to turn for support, being assisted through the burdens of administration is one way that students feel heard and understood. In the process, they develop skills in navigating bureaucratic organizations and towards the later stages of their studies they indeed voice comparably fewer requests, that are best directed to centralized support structures. Apparently, students learn which requests are common to their peers, and which ones are more individual. In sum, centralizing support and providing familiar, standard pathways for students creates order in a complex, multifunctional environment; however, underpinning administration which also focuses on the student as an individual learner contributes to a well-rounded academic education.

In addition to providing regular face-to-face contact hours, our academic and support staff engage with students and go beyond what is expected by giving priority to community-building activities in cooperation with students themselves. At the beginning of the admission process, we invite students to an intake interview which serves as an opportunity for students to already meet and speak to faculty members while also determining whether the student and the program are a good match. Staff extends this type of personal contact in the subsequent years of the program through individual and small-scale meetings, mentoring in personal and character development workshops, supervising curricular projects, and taking part in extra-curricular activities.

Our communication with students extends beyond graduation, which at that point transforms into keeping the connection and sense of belonging to this community alive. For example, we provide alumni with post-graduation documentation that is not part of the standard package or give spotlight to graduate’s stories in the college community newsletter (which is supplementary to the mass newsletter sent out to all Tilburg University alumni).

We propose a two-step approach to clearly distinguish scalable from individual education and support by offering (1) efficient training for basic knowledge and core skills in (possibly online) self-study modules or large-scale lectures from (2) the application of the acquired knowledge and character building in a small-scale on-campus setting. In the first phase, students build a foundation of theoretical knowledge themselves by means of knowledge clips, (online) lectures, and self-tests and have little contact with professors. The large-scale context allows for efficient and standardized testing. The organization develops (over time) centralized support structures that efficiently deal with requests. The social contract between the student, the teachers and the organization fits the context and is more in line with current reality than with Montaigne’s ideal. Once students received credentials for passing the first step, they are required to continue with step two.

The second step involves small-scale application, synthesis and evaluation of the knowledge which was transferred in the first stage. Here, contact exists on a much smaller scale. We envision ‘massified small-scale education’ in which the resources that are freed up by offering depersonalized knowledge transfer (in step one) become available to offer a large number of parallel classes (in step two). The focus shifts from basic knowledge transfer to the application and critical analysis as well as to higher-order thinking skills such as integrating the knowledge into what the students recall from previous classes. In small-scale classes, students focus on the practice of material and the development of academic and research skills. In this phase, the teacher is closer to the tutor post than when delivering information to large groups: a personal relationship is developed between the tutor and the student. The social contract emphasizes adjustment of support to student needs, and stimulates character development along with the attainment of knowledge and skills-based learning objectives.

Separating these two phases, allows higher education institutions (and their teachers) to relate differently to their students. Students who, for a (set of) course(s) are in step one learn to channel their requests through the standardized and efficient university machinery. Teachers know that extensive student contact is not required in this stage and the organization can exert effort to streamline the processes for this part of education. Students who enter the second step will experience much closer contact, focused on application of material and the formation of judgment. Higher education institutions are expected to reduce pressure for standardized testing (such as multiple-choice exams) and standardized course formats in this phase. Instead, teachers are empowered to develop their courses in line with pedagogies they see fit for the context.

Matching expectations and effort to meet these in the different steps of the educational offering are expected to enhance student satisfaction, teachers’ pleasure on the job and ability to shine as education experts and organizations’ abilities to support teachers and students during their times in the institution.


Ehrenberg, R.G., Brewer, D.J., Gamoran, A., & Wilms, J.D. 2001. Class size and student achievement. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 2: 1-30.

Ghoshal, S. 2005. Bad management theories are destroying good management practices. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4(1): 75-81.

Hornsby, D.J., & Osman, R. 2014. Massification in higher education: Large classes and student learning. Higher Education 67(2): 711-719.

Kwiek, M. 2005. The university and the state in a global age: Renegotiating the traditional social contract? European Educational Research Journal 4(4): 324-341.

McCowan, T. 2015. Should universities promote employability? Theory and Research in Education 13(3): 267-285.

Montaigne, M. 1575. On the Education of Children. Essais. Book 1, chapter 26.

Van der Laan, G., & Willems, T. 2023. Helping Montaigne’s Students Making Better Decisions with Nudge Theory. Conference Presentation. Resilience in the Face of Adversity: A Core-Textual Approach Conference, Jan. 19-20, University College Tilburg.

Van Lenning, A. 2019. Out of the Labyrinth. Inaugural address, Tilburg University.

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